Actinic keratoses (also called solar keratoses) are dry scaly patches of skin that have been damaged by the sun.
The patches are not usually serious. But there's a small chance they could become skin cancer, so it's important to avoid further damage to your skin.
Check if you have actinic keratoses
- can feel dry, rough and scaly, or like sandpaper
- are usually between 1cm to 2cm in size
- can be the same colour as your skin or range from pink to red to brown
- may feel itchy
The patches usually appear on areas of your body that are often exposed to the sun, such as your face, hands and arms, ears, scalp and legs.
Non-urgent advice: See a GP if
- this is the first time you have noticed patches on your skin
- the patches begin to bleed, get bigger, change colour, feel tender or develop into a lump
It's important to get these skin changes checked, in case they could be caused by something more serious, such as skin cancer.
Treatment for actinic keratoses
If you only have 1 skin patch, a GP might suggest waiting to see if the patch goes away by itself.
If you have more than 1 patch, or a patch is causing you problems such as pain and itchiness, treatment is usually recommended. A GP may refer you to a skin specialist (dermatologist).
Treatments for actinic keratoses include:
- prescription creams and gels
- freezing the patches (cryotherapy), this makes the patches turn into blisters and fall off after a few weeks
- surgery to cut out or scrape away the patches – you will be given a local anaesthetic first, so it does not hurt
- photodynamic therapy (PDT), where special cream is applied to the patches and a light is shone onto them to kill abnormal skin cells
Things you can do to help
If you have actinic keratoses it's important to avoid any further sun damage. This will stop you getting more skin patches and will lower your chance of getting skin cancer.
use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 before going out into the sun and reapply regularly
wear a hat and clothing that fully covers your legs and arms when you're out in the sunlight
do not use sunlamps or sunbeds as these can also cause skin damage
do not go into the sun between 11am and 3pm – this is when the sun is at its strongest
Consider taking 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day if you always cover up outdoors. This is because you may not get enough vitamin D from sunlight.
Page last reviewed: 08 June 2020
Next review due: 08 June 2023